Of course, the Irish have always had the reputation for drinking too much.
But what we are dealing with here is a different level of alcohol abuse
The traditional image of the Irish is that they like to drink a few pints
of the black stuff in the pub, sing a few songs, talk a lot of rubbish and
then, while they can still walk in a relatively straight line, wander
off home. It’s what they call having the craic.
Even in the late 1960s when I was a student in Dublin, and drink, folk clubs
and the ballad boom were the thing, it rarely got out of hand. We drank
our share of pints and we were always trying to score a little grass (well, it
was the sixties, man!), but it was never enough to get us into trouble.
One of the main reasons we were more likely to stop at three or four pints
on a Friday or Saturday night is that the money always ran out.
What goes on among young people here now at weekends, however, is something else. A
typical Saturday night out can start at home in the afternoon with several
cans of beer, then an evening in the pub consuming at least five or six pints
or shots, then a few hours in a club where another four or five drinks are
Among these young binge drinkers (and it’s females as much as males),
it would not be unusual to have 10 or 12 drinks on an average night out.
At the teenage discos and clubs in the city, bouncers search the kids before they
are allowed inside and regularly come up with bottles of vodka, etc. Of
course this does not really solve the problem because it means that the kids down
the drink at home or on the street before they start lining up for the club.
A lot of the young adult drinkers (18 to 22) also dabble in drugs, and the result
is that when they hit the streets after the late night bars and clubs close they
are out of their heads, with 10 or more drinks inside them and cocaine
It’s a problem not just in the cities but in the bigger towns across Ireland. The running
battles, vicious fighting, puking, urinating, public sex and shouting and screaming
on the streets on weekend nights makes life hell for ordinary citizens
who live close to the action.
Of course not all the youngsters are involved in this. It’s still
a minority. But it’s a big enough minority to be very worrying, particularly
if you’re a parent.
Take a walk through the center of Ireland’s cities or main towns after
midnight at a weekend and you will find it a disturbing, intimidating experience.
There has been much soul searching about this in the last few years, coupled with demands
for more policing, more parental control and so on. A lot of newspaper ink has
been used up trying to analyze what is going wrong with Irish society.
Why are there so many young people who think the only way to have a good
time is to binge drink, to get totally out of their heads? Why must
they drink to such excess, so that some of them end up in a mess
or in a fight? When the fighting starts, why is it not just a few punches
being thrown, but heads being kicked in and knives being used?
One of the reasons that the young drinkers consume such enormous amounts
of booze, of course, is that they can. They have the money.
It’s no accident that the problem has emerged and worsened so quickly
during the Celtic Tiger decade. Success has bred excess at all
levels in Irish society, particularly among the young.
A European study recently showed that in Ireland we drink 13.4 liters (just under
three gallons) of pure alcohol a year compared to the European average of 10.2
liters. Even so, we are not the biggest drinkers in Europe (we’re
behind Luxembourg and Hungary).
But we are by far the biggest binge drinkers. And our binge drinking problem
is highest in the 15 to 24 age group.
If you have the misfortune to end up in accident and emergency in an
Irish hospital on a weekend night, you will see the result of this binge drinking
first hand. It’s not a pleasant place to bring a sick child.
The majority of the young people there are drunk. Shouting and swearing is common,
and the staff struggle to keep order.
The mayhem on the streets on the weekends (over 90% of public order offenses last
year were drink related) has led to repeated calls for the government to
“do something” to curb underage and binge drinking.
There have been some shocking incidents, like the one outside an upmarket disco
in Ballsbridge a few years back in which a teenager was kicked to death by
other teenagers who happened to be students at one of Ireland’s most expensive schools.
More recent cases (like the murder of two Polish men in Dublin by teenagers)
and the sight of drunken girls collapsed in the gutters on Saturday nights
has turned these calls into loud demands for action.
So last week the government responded, with new legislation designed
to tackle the problem and the changing pattern of alcohol sale and consumption
One of the big changes, ironically, has been the decline of traditional pubs. Hundreds
of them have gone out of business in the last five years, thanks mainly to the
smoking ban and the tougher drunk driving laws.
This does not mean that people here are drinking less. It just means that
more people here now buy their booze at off licenses and drink at home.
And it has meant a huge increase in wine sales.
A side effect of this change is that alcohol is now much more widely available,
with corner shops, convenience stores, supermarkets and gas stations now
selling booze. New figures from the Revenue Commissioners show
the rise in the number of retail outlets of all kinds selling booze —
4,261 off-licenses were issued last year, a rise of 530 on 2005. Meanwhile, 157
fewer pub licenses were issued last year compared to 2006.
Traditionally, alcohol used to be available only in pubs and dedicated off licenses,
selling only drink. Now it’s everywhere you go.
When you stop to buy a paper or pop into your corner shop to get bread it’s
right there in front of you. Some places only sell wine, others sell wine
and beer and others sell everything, including spirits, and there are different
off-licenses required for each. But the general wide availability of
alcohol has made it much more difficult to control sale and consumption.
The new law proposed by the government provides for the following:
*Off-sales of alcohol will be permitted only between 10:30 a.m. (7:30 a.m. at
present) and 10 p.m.
*Wine off-licenses, which may be obtained at present directly from the Revenue
Commissioners, will in future require a district court certificate (which means
local people will be able to object if there are problems).
*In future, alcohol products must be displayed and sold in supermarkets, convenience
stores, etc. in a specified area (at the moment displays of wine and beer are
all over the shops) which is structurally separated from the rest of the premises.
Where separation is not possible, alcohol products must be displayed and sold
from behind a counter. The aim is to reduce visibility and accessibility.
*Test purchasing of alcohol products will be introduced (the minister says that the Gardai
(police) will hire teenagers to go into outlets to buy booze and test
whether the age restrictions are being obeyed).
*All nightclubs and late bars will now have to provide CCTV systems.
*Late licenses for bars and clubs will be limited, with all extensions beyond
normal pub hours now to be granted in the District Courts.
*The Gardai will now be able to take any bottle or can which may contain
alcohol from a person who appears to be under 18.
*The Gardai will be able to take bottles or cans from anyone
on the street when there is a risk of public disorder.
*Promotions (like two for the price of one sales) of alcohol will be banned.
Will all this new legislation solve the problem? Will it even make
much of a difference?
The fact is that the courts and the Gardai can only do so much. Enforcement is
much more important than extra laws.
But it’s a worthwhile attempt to get some control back.